Germantown beekeepers busy as bees all year long

Gloria Hafemeister
The bees at Indian Summer Honey Farm at Germantown will soon be on their way to sunny Florida for their winter vacation.

GERMANTOWN – When some retired snowbirds pack up their things and head for warmer weather and birds begin their migratory flight south, the Werner family packs up their business and moves to sunny Florida.

The Germantown beekeepers manage 4,000 hives in 100 locations in seven counties. Chris Werner who started Indian Summer Honey Farm back in 1982 says by spreading the hives out over such a big area they are able to take advantage of the big variety of crops grown in different weather conditions. This year, for instance, he says some areas were parched and dry until recently while other areas had an abundance of rain.

Each year they send a couple of truckloads of hives to California where there are more crops in need of pollination than the native California bees can handle.

In October, they pack up their family and their remaining bees and migrate to central Florida.

Werner says, “We drive back and forth," said Werner, adding that it takes seven semi loads to get all the bees down there.. "Our goal is to have them all in place before hunting season and Thanksgiving so our drivers can be back home with their families.”

Bees are transported in a trailer covered with screen to allow for air movement and to keep the bees cool.

Werner explained that Florida is a common destination for honey farmers to go during the winter months so that they can keep their bees healthy and raise queens for other farms.

Bees need just as much food to move and winter in Florida as they would if they were to stay up here in the cold, he said.

“We get quite a bit of feed in them, we haul them down on semis, and they will spend a quiet period of time in November, December, and early January in Florida,” Chris explained, “By late January we begin the process of dividing them into nucleus colonies and building cell builder colonies and we raise new queens.”

The hardest part is the move each year. Once May rolls around, they bring the bees back to Wisconsin. May through the beginning of August are very busy months due to it being the prime honey production time in the state. During those first months of production the Werner family harvests up to 12,000 pounds of honey a day.

They do process and market some honey in Florida but not as much as they do in their Germantown facility where they have an on-farm store and also serve as the sole supplier of honey to Sprecher Brewery in Milwaukee for use in their sodas.

Werner has been in the honey business most of his life. He previously worked on a Saukville dairy farm and had planned to get into dairy but times were tough for dairy farmers in those years and he was encouraged to look into bees instead.

Becky Werner who runs Indian Summer Honey Farm at Germantown together with her husband Chris and their family describes the life of a honey bee to home-schooled students.

He credits his mentor Margaret Ahlers of Honey Grove Ice Cream and Apiaries at West Bend for much of the encouragement he has received over the years. Known as “the honey lady”, Werner says she has taught him a lot. He also attributes learning a great deal from Gary Oreskovic of Honeyland Farms at Saukville.

Werner is a former president of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association and says it has been very helpful meeting honey producers from around the state and sharing ideas in dealing with the challenges of bee-keeping.

Mites have been an issue for many years as have been the concerns over sprays and insecticides used for pests on crops that can also be harmful to bees.

He doesn’t see an issue with insecticides now, however. He says often problems with bees are more related to management issues.

Werner has noticed, though, that in more recent years, late season flowering plants like golden rod and asters don’t seem to be producing as much nectar as they once did. This creates problems for beekeepers who find it necessary to provide more supplement feed to bees going into fall than they once did.

“We have so many questions about these things and we are still learning all the time,” he said.

Beekeepers wonder if changes in wildflowers like asters and goldenrod have resulted in less nectar available to the bees.

He describes his bee keeping business as much the same as any other type of agriculture: they seed a crop in spring and harvest it throughout the summer. Werner says they are dependent on other farmers’ crops to succeed.

Beekeepers depend on good weather conditions just as other farmers do. He says ideally spring should be cool and wet followed by a dry summer.

“Bees should have wet feet and dry heads. That happens with warm nights and moisture on the plants and dry air so they can fly,” he pointed out.

Heavy rains will wash nectar out of flowers and also makes it difficult for bees to fly.

Indian Summer Honey Farm recently hosted tours for homeschoolers in the area where they were taught about the honey business beginning with the bees all the way to the customer.

Werner’s wife, Becky, spoke with the group. She and several of their seven children work at the business along with five other employees.

She told the children that when working with the bees it is important to wear a face mask. However, if humans don't bother the bees, generally the bees won’t bother them either.

When harvesting honey, workers strive to be in and out of a bee yard within 40 minutes. In order to get the honey, they use smoke made from wood pellets and long leaf pine needles found in Florida.

Becky says the smoke moves the bees out of the way as they work and doesn’t hurt the bees. The smoke "mainly annoying" so the bees focus on the smoke instead of what the humans are doing.

"Most days we don’t get stung, but if bees do sting it swells and goes away quickly," she said, pointing out that there's a big honey bees and others like wasps and hornets that could attack. "Honey bees generally won’t sting unless they feel threatened. They are too busy working."

The male bees called drones, do not sting. The worker bees, which are female, do sting. The queen is the only one bee who can lay eggs. Each hive contains one family with its own queen. 

Students also observed a hornet's nest which is created using a paper-like substance that could never hold honey. Honey bees in the wild make their hives in a protected area. They make wax and shape it into hexagons to fit more cells in one small area.

The Werners say their main concern in Florida is developing and raising queens which are in demand by other bee keepers. For a variety of reasons, honey production varies from 75 pounds to 100 pounds per hive. They believe some of that has to do with the queen.

Queens are produced by feeding a female bee royal jelly.  Werner points out that some honey producers will market the royal jelly but they do not because it is more valuable to them for producing queens.

During the tour the students also saw how the family processes the honey and then stores it in 55 gallon drums, each holding 660 pounds of honey.

Many of them brought along glass jars to fill in the on-farm shop where the Werners sell honey and other bee related products.